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Achieving an Equal Future: Above All, Transforming Mindsets and Behaviours

7 Mar 2021

Achieving an Equal Future: Above All, Transforming Mindsets and Behaviours
In his blog for International Women’s Day 2021, Francisco Cos-Montiel argues that well-designed quotas are key to progress in women's political participation. When we think of women’s leadership, however, equally essential—but also slower and more complex—is social transformation that breaks through cultural barriers to gender equality and justice.

Today we commemorate International Women's Day and I cannot help but remember that one year ago, on 8 March 2020, I had the opportunity to participate in a momentous demonstration in Mexico City that brought together hundreds of thousands of women. These women dared to challenge the status quo, calling for justice in the face of the femicides that have come to plague not only Mexico but the entire Latin American region. What struck me most was their main demand: "We are not going to ask for justice. We are going to take justice, to do justice for ourselves." This demand is essential if we as a society recognize the historical debt we owe in terms of gender justice. Today we are not able to take to the streets “en masse” to demand justice in the same way as we did a year ago in many cities of the world. Nevertheless, this date exhorts us to reflect on the theme of International Women’s Day: “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a Covid-19 world”.

I have the privilege to lead the Gender Justice and Development programme at UNRISD, where political voice and participation is and always has been at the center of the project of gender equality. Yet the proportion of women in leadership positions in the political sphere has progressed at a slow pace.

Unequal outcomes, especially at the local level

Only 21 countries currently have women heads of State or government. With a global average of 25% women, most parliaments remain male-dominated, and women MPs are often under-represented in decision-making bodies. Women account for 50% or more of members in just three parliaments (Cuba, Rwanda, and the United Arab Emirates).

In many cases there are gender policies and institutions at the national level, but the closer we get to the local level the harder it can be for women to gain access to decision-making bodies, and to ensure their needs and opinions are taken into account. Research has found that in South Africa, for example, conservative local politics made it difficult for women to get elected. Local councils remain largely resistant to women's interests, or outright hostile to gender issues.

In the southern Indian state of Kerala, for example, women occupy more than one-third of local government seats due to the constitutional amendments which reserved this amount for women throughout India. But rarely do they occupy powerful positions or move on to politics at higher levels. Leaders of the male-dominated political parties show little interest in expanding the scope of women’s participation.

In both places, the research also showed that women’s participation in local initiatives often reinforces their traditional roles as caregivers and homemakers, rather than empowering them to assert greater influence over the decisions that affect them.

Quotas are key to securing an equal presence of women in national and municipal councils, but quotas are not enough to turn women’s presence into influence on decision making. Research and experience demonstrate that women’s political representation and participation require advocacy, negotiation, networking, collective mobilization, and contestation by grassroots groups, non-governmental organizations and others. The role of women’s movements in promoting women’s political participation and access to services, in claiming equal rights and challenging gender injustice, must be recognized and resourced. At UNRISD, we are committed to working with women’s groups as equal partners in the production of knowledge towards these ends.

Shifting cultural norms: more than increasing women’s political participation

Today, I would also like to highlight that while eliminating obstacles through well-designed quotas is key to progress, it is also key to understand the cultural barriers that present subjective obstacles to women’s political participation. For instance, in
Argentina—a country where formal obstacles to women’s political participation have been eliminated—researchers found that it is the cultural norms of femininity and masculinity that explain women’s low political participation in diverse spheres of power.

We all engage with these norms explicitly and implicitly, in our family upbringing and in terms of culture and the wider society. Some of these norms remain at the unconscious level, and the way we introject them produces a sense that norms are preordained. The vast majority of human beings see the existing division—women in care work; men in government and defense work—as natural. This is an important obstacle to the success of political interventions.

How can we shift deeply rooted ideas that it is men who are the bold heroes in the workplace; or that staying at home and cooking are for the weak or the unemployed? How can we transform such codes of masculinity and femininity? Cultural processes of change, changes in mindsets and behaviours, tend to be very slow. Yet, in a very short period of time, the Covid-19 pandemic has challenged this reality. In Spain, research has shown that when men have had to stay at home, they have taken on more domestic and care tasks. There are reports of many men finding satisfaction by spending more time with their children. There are men who are willing to change, but they need to find incentives and support in social discourse in order to feel legitimate. If we talk publicly about these mandates of the masculine and feminine, we will find that more people are shifting, changing. In this case, the Covid-19 pandemic may be an opportunity to reverse gender inequality.

We need more women in leadership roles in the public sphere, and men participating more in the private sphere. Parity should be the bottom line. If the human condition is mixed, decision-making spaces and private spaces should be mixed as well. This is a change that will take time, and where it hasn’t happened yet, it should start now. This would not only be a step towards a more equal future, it would be a commitment to gender justice.



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.